Every Saturday, I coach young footballers between the ages of six and eight in the United States. I usually begin each session with a series of warm-up activities to go over the basics of dribbling, passing and shooting. The remainder of the time is spent playing small-sided games with these skills in mind.
As is to be expected, the ball is occasionally deflected up into the air. Under the new US Soccer mandate, youngsters under the age of 10 are barred from heading it, so the ball almost invariably drops back to the ground untouched and the game continues. The next week, the same thing happens all over again.
Fifteen years ago, my generation didn’t learn this way. The bigger kids hoofed the ball in the air. We all chased it down and then kicked it as hard as we could in the vague direction of the opposition goal. Passing and dribbling were afterthoughts. Heading the ball was an exciting adventure to be encouraged. Our technique didn’t improve. Growth simply consisted of becoming faster and stronger.
That’s why, when the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) first mooted the idea of regulating headers in 2014, I considered it an attack on my own development as a player. I wasn’t the only one who was angry. The USSF fielded widespread criticism, while advocates such as Taylor Twellman even received death threats on Twitter. Many believed outlawing such a fundamental part of the game would set the sport back.
The authorities disagreed. Citing studies from The American Journal of Sports Medicine, the USSF ruled that headers posed an unnecessary risk to young players. As a result of this decision, the Federation announced the US Soccer Concussion Initiative 2016, banning heading for children under 10 and limiting the practice for those younger than 13.
A steady flow of scholarship has since confirmed their decision was a wise one, sparking similar conversations across the UK and Western Europe. With the backing of former international stars like Alan Shearer, researchers continue to discover more and more consequences of concussion for athletes.
The most recent scientific analysis has focused directly on the game’s most recognisable incidence of brain trauma: heading the ball. While a popular study by The Journal of the American Medical Association showed that only 30% of concussions are caused directly by headers, the University of Stirling found that heading leads to both a direct disruption of memory and short-term reduction in brain function. Although the long-term effects aren’t conclusive, cases such as Jeff Astle’s – the former Notts County and West Brom striker whose death at the age of 59 was linked to degenerative brain disease brought about by repeated heading of the ball – lend further weight to an issue which is becoming more serious by the month.
Yet even with all this new evidence, there are some in the US who view the new rules as an unwelcome sign of football going soft. Are they going to ban all contact now? How will players ever learn to head the ball properly?
The best antidote for misplaced irritation is experience – and that was certainly true in my case. While playing one weekend, I rose to flick on a long punt upfield and briefly forgot my name. After that episode I appreciated the merits of the USSF’s mandate, a feeling which was reinforced when I suffered nine future concussions – some from headers, others from seemingly innocuous contact with fellow players.
Like most teenagers, I was blasé about the potential consequences of my actions. I loved the game too much to care and would do whatever it took to win. And that’s exactly why restricting headers shouldn’t be a personal decision.
The answer isn’t for national federations to completely ban heading. It is, however, vital that frequent impact is regulated until players reach an age and level of maturity where they’re able to fully understand the risks they’re taking. The USSF should therefore be commended for their decision, but I believe football authorities across the world should go one step further and ban headers outside the penalty area until the professional level.
Even on the off-chance regular head-to-ball contact doesn’t lead to long-term brain damage, the science backs up anecdotal evidence that heading the ball impacts the present-day function of the brain. Trying to reduce the negative effects of the practice isn’t ‘soft’. And it certainly won’t lead to the end of all contact in the game; it just limits a specific type of injury proven to adversely impact players in the midst of cognitive development.
Ian Barker, the director of education for the United Soccer Coaches, was among the sceptics within the US. “If we have very, very prohibitive protocols in regard to heading and the rest of the world doesn’t, there’s a long-term implication for our competitive relevance in certain technical aspects,” he said.
Yet the skills can still be honed without actual contact. Headers aren’t just about the final action, but also the timing of the run, the reading of the game and the instinct to be in the right place at the right time. If heading was only prohibited outside the penalty area, moreover, it would encourage better technique and promote skill over size.
The kids I coach have never played with the ball in the air, simply because they’re not allowed to. That in turn has improved the relationship between ball, ground, feet and body, encouraging players to pass along the ground. The banning of heading has had a positive effect on those aforementioned core skills: passing, dribbling, shooting.
As the world continues to learn more about the serious consequences of brain damage, further regulation of heading is a change which seems more inevitable than idealistic. Once we get past the initial shock, the benefits of player development and player safety go hand in hand.
The dangers of concussion are no longer a secret. Coupled with the advantageous aspects of effectively enforcing the ball to return to the ground as soon as possible, it’s clear that the banning of non-penalty box heading until the professional level is, if you’ll excuse the pun, a no-brainer.